Monday, December 23, 2013


Recently Jasper had a nightmare that I was shot a bunch of times. I didn’t die, but when they took me to the hospital, the doctors there killed me and turned me into a robot. He was sitting on my lap in the living room chair telling me this, and he started to cry.

“It reminded me of Balthazar, and it made me sad,” he sobbed.

“Why does it remind you of Balthazar?” I asked, a little perplexed. I had thought the dream was about his fear of losing me, but obviously there was more going on.

“Because we can’t bring him back.”

Jasper and I have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer together. There’s a lot of death on the show, but because it’s fantasy death is often of the “yes, but” variety. Vampires are dead, and yet they walk and talk and sometimes fall in love and have souls. Buffy dies and yet conveniently there is magic to bring her back. Jasper has always maintained a sturdy sense of the difference between fact and fiction, but maybe watching the show has caused him to think more about death, and ways to evade it.

Although, to be fair, this loved-one-dying-and-becoming-a-robot theme long predates our Buffy watching.  On April 8, 2012, five days after Balthazar was born, which also happened to be Easter Sunday, he told me that his stuffed dinosaur Phinly was dead and a robot. Occasionally we still talk about the fact that Phinly is a robot facsimile. The latest is that he is a regular dinosaur, but has robotic implants in his neck.

In some ways Jasper is miles ahead of where he was then, and so grown up. But in trying to make sense of death his unconscious still goes right to robots. A robot looks like your loved one. A robot might sound like your loved one, or do things she would do, but a robot is a machine. There is no blood, no heart. Jasper knows that his unconscious is grasping at straws. A robot mom wouldn't be his mom, even if a robot mom were possible. We decided that I would not die and be turned into a robot.

We can never have Balthazar back, robot or otherwise.

A couple of nights later, while cuddling on the couch watching Buffy, he referred to Balthazar again. “I will always have a hole in my heart,” he said.

Now it’s me looking for a workaround. I desperately parse the sentence. Does it really have to be always? Can it be just for a few years? Something he will outgrow, like his asthma? Or could the hole be really really tiny, like a microscopic hole? Something so small he forgets it’s there? What can I do to take this pain from him? There has to be something. Anything.


When Jasper was little he and I would often walk up our street to the coffee shop on the corner. Along the way, Jasper liked to collect the tiny plastic bbs that collected in the crevices of the sidewalk. He thought that they rained down from the sun during the night, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that neighborhood kids shot the neon orange and green balls from their bb guns. His invented poetry of them falling from the sun at night was so lovely and magical.

Most of the children on the street were older than he was, as evidenced by the bbs and the preponderance of basketball hoops. But there was one boy, a year or so older, who lived in a big Craftsman foursquare about three-quarters of the way up the street. He was a sturdy kid with straight fair hair like Jasper's.

"Asper!" he would call from the yard when we walked by, holding up a dump truck or an action figure. There was no chance that we could pass by without a visit.

One afternoon when Jasper was three and Eric was four, they started playing superheroes. Playing superheroes, at their age, consisted entirely of setting the parameters for the game. Accordingly, they began to organize things: who was who, what powers they had. Because Eric was older he took the lead, which Jasper, being a bossy only child, was a little bit annoyed by. I had mounted the steps to the porch to say hello to Eric's mother, so I missed some of the negotiations. On my way back down the stairs Eric said something, presumably to the effect that Jasper's superhero character was make-believe.

Jasper misunderstood.
"No, I'm real," he said, emphatically, confidently. "My mommy says I'm real."

When Jasper announced to Eric that he was real, I understood, in a way that had been up until that point intuitive, not conscious, what a mother is for. A mother does more than create a child physically, does more than keep his body alive with her milk and her jars of baby food, car seats and fleece hats. It was the thing I had seen when Jasper was first born and we looked into each other’s eyes. A mother, in her look and her touch and her words, makes a child real.

There was no hesitation in Jasper's voice. There was no doubt. His incontrovertible proof was me. I had said so, and it was true.  Like the boy in The Velveteen Rabbit, who had animated his stuffed rabbit with his love, my love had done this.

The dark side of this tremendous power is that a mother also can, by neglect or abuse, teach a child that he isn’t real. I’ve worked so hard to spare Jasper that emotional damage. I’ve been obsessed with empathy and with stability, the crucial things I lacked. Consistent engagement, physical affection. Not much criticism, no shame. Eight years in the same house. Four years at the neighborhood school where I volunteer and hang out and know everyone. He’s had the same best friend since he was four, and he needs both hands and both feet to count the rest of his pals. When I was eight did I even have any friends?

I’m sure every generation makes the same promise to their children. I’m sure my father vowed that my brother and I would never feel the pain of his childhood. He tried to spare us the financial deprivation, and he made sure we never felt the strap. But there were other things he couldn’t have anticipated or prepared for. I think that’s just how it works.

Because I’ve failed. Despite my best efforts I haven’t spared Jasper, I’ve just given him a different variety of suffering. I’ve made an empathetic, sensitive, loving boy. And he’s been hurt. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did anyway. Are the things I’ve done well enough to see him through the rest? If I prayed I would pray for that.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

In Defense of Vanity

When Balthazar died I let my hair grow long. It was the obverse of the bad-breakup haircut of your twenties, when a brush with heartbreak drives you to get a short, sassy ‘do that your coworkers call ‘fetching’ and which charms the next guy who becomes your husband. Growing my hair was equal parts laziness and lamentation; the iconography of wild grief demands that your hair tumble out of your headscarf or your diadem and swirl madly in the wind. I mean, imagine Medea covered in the blood of her children, her bobbed hair tucked neatly behind her ears. But also, I think, unconsciously, it represented a desire to turn back the clock to a time when the choices that would place me here had yet to be made.

I hadn’t had long hair since 1994, and I wasn’t sure if I was too old for it.  The phrase “mutton dressed up as lamb” entered my mind, unbidden, from the pages of some moralistic Edwardian novel deep in my past. Would I look like an ‘80’s supermodel or would I look like one of Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters? Malevolent old witch or desirable hottie? I decided I didn’t really care which way it went.

Ironically, it looks great. Not 80’ supermodel great, mind you, but I look better than I have in years, maybe ever. A mom friend of mine at school stopped me on the playground one afternoon to tell me so. 

“You look really fit," she said. "Even your hair, your skin…”

I said thanks. Then she asked me how I was doing. She looked completely startled when I began to cry.

“It’s just right there, isn’t it?” she observed, sympathetic but also perplexed. Should it really be right there, after so long a time?

I was crying because looking pretty seemed like such a pathetic consolation prize. I wanted to be a chubby, frumpy middle-aged woman. Or, if not wanted, then that’s what I chose. I chose to be the mom of two who was chronically dissatisfied that she couldn’t lose those last fifteen pounds. Sometimes, when complimented by some kind, generous woman, I want to say, with venom, “Yeah, some moms have babies who live, and some have Crossfit.” Sometimes when an out-of-shape mom looks wistfully at my hips I want to ask her if she wants to trade.

None of the complimentary moms would trade with me in a million fucking years, no matter how “good” I look.


But even as I write this I realize how completely disingenuous I’m being; it’s not as if the way I look is an accident. I may have grown out my hair in a spirit of inattention or sorrow, but I have Moroccan oil and Oribe beach spray and a really excellent colorist named Stephanie to forestall the Weird Sister effect. No one’s making me go to Crossfit, or eschew wheat. In The Noonday Demon, his excellent book about depression, Andrew Solomon says: “Depression lowers self-esteem, but in many personalities it does not eliminate pride, which is as good an engine for the fight as any I know. When you’re so far down that love seems almost meaningless, vanity…can save your life.”

I say unequivocally that hell yes, it can. And I appreciate Solomon’s honesty, and the opening it gives me, because it’s embarrassing to admit. In the same way that I have felt that grief should transcend anger, shouldn’t it transcend vanity as well? Shouldn’t I spend my time jotting extremely philosophical musings into a handmade paper journal? Shouldn’t I be reading Yeats or quoting Sartre instead of buying a new tinted moisturizer and debating whether or not I can pull off 2.5 inch Nike boyshorts?

I could pretend that it’s not vanity at all, that the fitness part, at least, is motivated by a more socially acceptable concern for my health. It’s true that at first I wanted to get in shape for a specific, practical reason, which was to have another baby. Mostly, though, I wanted it because losing my looks just seemed to be adding insult to injury. Must I be bereaved and fat as well? Some days the way I look might seem like a pathetic consolation prize, but it’s a pathetic consolation prize I wanted, and have worked to get.


One Saturday this month I had my annual mammogram at the same hospital where Balthazar was born. It was my first time back there, which only added to the ominous quality of the visit. Thank God mammography and labor and delivery are in completely different wings of the hospital.

The technician asked me if I had a family history of breast cancer, so I had to repeat the story about my mom and my grandmother and my aunt that I have told so many times to so many different people. You’d think that Kaiser would write it in my chart, but no.

“Oh dear,” the technician said when I told her. As I left I thought, wouldn’t that be just great. I was hoping that the universe would leave me alone for a little while, but I’m fully aware that it doesn’t work that way.

The following Thursday I got a message that I needed to come back in for a follow-up. I went from zero to panic in 5.2 seconds, and in the past I have prided myself on not doing that. I’m different now, though. Now I recognize “It’s probably fine” as the utter bullshit that it is.

I wish I could tell you that my first thought as I listened to the message was of Jasper, but instead it was this:

“Damn, and my boobs are looking so good right now!”

My second thought:

“And my hair, too!”

Like all writers, I imagine, I have lived many, many other lives in my head. I have conducted entire relationships, from courtship all the way to death, complete with scintillating dialogue. I have been in terrible accidents and failed, or succeeded, at any number of careers. It only took a moment to form the requisite scenes: here I was, bald and sallow from liver failure. One of my breasts had been hacked away and I had a little bag by my side to drain the fluid from my armpit. I was wasted and constantly nauseated from chemo; my sole form of exercise had become a slow, labored walk to the end of my street and back.

Forget Crossfit. Forget picking up Jasper and hauling him across the room. Forget my guilty pleasure in being the object of the male gaze. The strength, the health, the hair—all would be gone. What, of all that would be lost, would I miss the most?

Goddamnit, I thought, I’ve barely begun to pull myself together. I’ve really only got as far as my hair, and my biceps and my quads. Everything else is still a mess: work, money, relationships, abs. I’ve got to have more time!  

The follow-up mammogram turned up nothing more than a summation effect. A summation effect is apparently when parts of an image overlap and it looks like there might be something there, but there isn’t. I don’t have cancer and I’m not dying, except to the extent that we all are. And the choices that brought me here have been made and no amount of product is going to undo them. The only question is what I am going to do now.

One thing I am going to do is wear those really small boy shorts to the gym, and just own my vanity, because it may be a silly, easily ridiculed aspect of the psyche, but it’s also been a source of unexpected strength. And, let’s be honest, of pleasure, which is nothing to scorn.

Monday, November 18, 2013


I spend a lot of time at a neighborhood coffeehouse called Seven Virtues. The seven virtues, which are printed on their mugs so that you can ponder them as you drink, are honesty, compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness and gratitude. Like everyone else, I find some of these qualities easier to cultivate than others.  I start the list feeling pretty good about myself: yes, I think I am very honest, and often compassionate. I can be kind. Then things start to get shaky. Humble? Well...I guess…Patient? Umm…no, not at all. By the time I get to the end of the list it’s a close race between forgiveness and gratitude for the honor of Virtue I Embody the Least. I can hold a grudge to match any Scottish grandmother, but in the end gratitude still wins. Or loses.

Here we are, entering the season of gratitude again. Last year I didn’t even try. I just said fuck it to the whole thing and refused to feel guilty about it. On Thanksgiving I went to yoga and moved my body through the positions, not hearing a word that was said. I made a caramelized onion pudding and burned my arm on the pan. The pain of the burn was the realest thing I felt that whole terrible holiday. But this year many of my friends are posting things they are grateful for on Facebook, every day. It's making me feel cranky and inadequate, or maybe it’s my own ingratitude that makes me feel that way. So I’m trying to reframe the whole question of gratitude. I’ve been thinking in terms of what, over the past nineteen months, has made me glad to be alive. For most of that time there have been three things, and only three things: Jasper, my memoir, and Crossfit.

The memoir, even more than my other writing, has been a kind of alchemy. I conjured it from nothing, about someone who never was. I understand intellectually that it’s a complex process of pulling memories, making associations, choosing and organizing words, but sometimes it still feels like magic. I hope that the result for other people will be visceral, but for me it required an inwardness that was so extreme as to resemble sensory deprivation. Which was convenient because there was not much to look at outside.

It was as if the entire world was socked in, like the top of a mountain encased in dense clouds. I could see a foot in any direction, but the rest was just white. I knew that the world still existed, that there was a peak somewhere out there, and waterfalls and wildflowers and marmots scuttling through the scree, but I couldn’t see anything. Even the sound was muffled. I just kept walking.


Jasper is a punner, a word-player. The other day we were eating appetizers at a not-very-good Thai restaurant. “This tempura is bland,” he proclaimed. “Blando Calrissian,” he said, a play on the name of the Star Wars character played by Billy Dee Williams. Then he cracked up. He cracks himself up a lot. Yesterday, eating lunch at a better Thai restaurant, I told him that I take a lot of credit for how articulate he is, because I talked to him so much when he was a baby.

“Uh, I dunno,” he said in response, his eyes full of mischief. “It’s like, umm, you know, what do you call it? I don’t know the word for it…”

Who made this kid so damn funny?

Jasper and his quotidian requirements have kept me tethered: lunches to be packed, sweatpants to be washed, playdates to arrange. He is insistently and relentlessly in my face, in the best possible way, demanding fried wontons and strawberry smoothies and bacon biscuits. His long coltish legs, his bouncing walk, his deep-set blue eyes, his 70’s teen idol hair are all right there. Close enough to see no matter how thick the fog.

I competed in a Crossfit competition a few weeks ago. In my typically heedless fashion I signed up, not for the beginner level, but for the level above that. I was in way over my head, and parts of it were rough. But there were moments that were great: handling the pressure and the noise and the crowd and getting personal bests in my lifts, cheering for teammates, managing to lift a 50-pound ball over my shoulder 26 times.

Afterward one of my coaches said that was a side of me he’d never seen before, how hard I fought. I was a little surprised, honestly, because that’s how I think of myself. Maybe it’s because I showed up at the gym seven months postpartum (read: chubby), or because I’m older, or because I’m quiet. But the fight is who I am.

I can’t help but think of Forster again, something that Mr. Emerson, the old Socialist, says to Lucy in A Room With a View: “By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes--a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

In the movie they take out the word “transitory” and add in a few extra yes’s, something I didn’t notice until recently. So Hollywood, to remove the author’s carefully considered caveat in order to make it more positive. Forster had it right the first time, and I agree with him with all I have.
It’s why I go to Crossfit. To say yes. Having Balthazar was a yes and now, without him, I still say yes to life with all I’ve got.


It’s not histrionic to say that my three things saved my life, kept me from walking off the cliff when I couldn’t see a thing. But now I notice that some of the fog has burned off. Beauty has been slowly coming back into focus. Maybe soon there will be more than three things that I can point to that make me glad to be alive.

An Annunciation by Fra Angelico. A song I’ve never heard before, or a song I haven’t let myself listen to for nineteen months. A beautiful man. A redheaded child. A guy playing Bach on the mandolin. Patchwork squares of vineyards glowing red across the Columbia. A moto jacket. Even something as stupid as a website enumerating the most egregious autocorrections can actually make me laugh. Out loud. With tears and everything. It’s something to be grateful for.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Wabi-sabi is a term that I heard for the first time in a Japanese art class in college. All art history majors had to take at least one class in non-Western art: West African masks, Chinese painting, Islamic manuscript illumination. Things Japanese were trendy in academia at the time, and it was the least alien-seeming choice.

Yet I felt an immediate resistance to Japanese art, almost an antipathy. My textbook had a blackened, lumpen tea service on the cover that I thought was hideous. Shouldn’t a tea service be bone-white and smooth and painted with colorful hummingbirds?

The hideous tea service was beautiful, I was told, because it embodied wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi is the characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty, occupying roughly the same position in Japanese aesthetic values as the Greek ideals that I was already steeped in and which were so much easier for me to appreciate. The wabi-sabi aesthetic is grounded in an acceptance of transience and imperfection: no Colosseum, in other words. No David. The art and architecture of wabi-sabi is asymmetrical, rough or irregular, simple, economical, austere, and modest.

Inside my textbook were photographs of gardens made of rocks, tables of unfinished wood, Tadao Ando houses that appeared to me to be mere concrete boxes. Wabi-sabi came to occupy the place in my mind where I kept Catherine MacKinnon and Daniel Deronda and how to read a plan and elevation: I appreciated having been exposed to them, but ugh.


Then I moved to Portland. Everything here is broken, old and repurposed. Rotting hiking boots used as flowerpots. Rainbow chard growing in buckets on the front porch. A rusted bicycle ridden across a weedy lawn by a topiary man. Purple and blue and pink wood frame houses, Victorian and Craftsman-style, with peeling paint and rotting steps.

The Louisville neighborhood where I grew up was the opposite. The houses were neo-everything and tastefully neutral in color and design. The yards were monocultures swathed in fertilizer, the landscaping corporate in its banality and utility. No one dare hang a Tibetan prayer flag, or paint their house cobalt blue, or dig up the lawn and put in Ohio Valley-appropriate plantings. Presumably there were codes against that sort of thing. At my house everything was in perfect repair, and preferably new. Everything was clean, and in its proper place.

That environment oppressed me, but it wasn’t until I lived in Portland that I began to see what, exactly, bothered me. Isn’t that Neo-Colonial just a little too symmetrical? I found myself thinking. Isn’t that Meissen just a little too pretty? Isn’t it all just kind of slick and heavy-handed and obvious?

Portland’s wabi-sabi aesthetic has to do, in part, with the weather. The constant rain and the fact that the housing stock is made of wood means that it is virtually impossible to keep things up to a Midwestern standard. Partly it's economic. People are chronically underemployed and no one has the money to paint every other year, or hire a landscaper, or fix those steps.

It is also the culture, in good ways and in bad. People in Portland have creativity to burn: on one block you can spot a handmade mosaic-tiled birdfeeder, an intersection where the asphalt is painted with a giant mandala, and a chicken coop that looks like a cathedral.  In general, though, Portlanders do not demonstrate Type A perfectionist characteristics. I, for one, am a type B lazy slob who would always, always rather be reading than mopping the kitchen floor.

If you do scrape together the money to paint your steps it’s likely to be a half-assed job using the wrong paint, performed by a sexy bearded Turkish guy perpetually drunk on red wine. Or so I’ve heard.

Discovering that my eye had changed, or that maybe my values had always been different than I had thought, reminded me of high school, when I made a big deal about hating the Replacements, only to belatedly discover, to my embarrassment, that I secretly loved them; had, in fact, loved them all along.


Wabi-sabi is meant to evoke a feeling of serene melancholy and spiritual longing. The feeling arises from the acknowledgement of these realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. It’s counterintuitive, even downright un-American. But very Balthazar. Wabi-sabi is about transience and imperfection.

Of course we are all transient. But we can kind of put that in a dark closet most of the time because life usually goes on for quite a few years and if all you did was meditate on your impending death how would you ever pay the cable bill? A baby who dies before he is born is the essence of transience. He is a moth, a soap bubble, a scent of honeysuckle drifting through the garden.

The first night I went to the grief group I briefly attended after Balthazar died, the father of one stillborn baby passed around a professionally-made photo album he and his wife had created of their dead daughter, including glamour shots of her in different outfits, posed with them and with their older child. As I flipped through the pages I felt a wave of protectiveness wash over me.

The truth that became apparent as I met more parents of stillborn babies was that Balthazar was not an especially good-looking stillborn baby, even by our generous, grief-stricken standards. None of us could pretend that our babies were “perfect,” of course, despite what the OB said at Balthazar’s delivery, because to be perfect they would have to have been alive. But somehow there was still a competition going on for…what? Most resemblance to a marble cherub on a funerary monument? The dead baby beauty pageant awards no prizes.

Some of the other babies really did look as if they were asleep. Balthazar did not look asleep. There was a crust of blood at his mouth and his vernix pallor was unnerving. He looked very, very dead, and there was nothing lovely about that.

Right after Balthazar died Jasper asked me which one of them I loved more. Even with his brother gone, or maybe because he was gone, it was very important to him that I say that if Balthazar had lived I would have loved them the same, but since I never got to know Balthazar and I had known Jasper for seven years already, I loved him the most.

Jasper has the look of the Kritios boy: classically formed, strong and perfect. He is the boy holding the snake in Gèrôme; he is Donatello’s David.

Balthazar is a lumpy tea service, a cup shattered in the kiln. Transient, imperfect, beautiful.